By Tom Passavant
Until just a year or so ago, the idea that anyone would think of the city of Napa as a legitimate destination for wine and food lovers was laughable. Compared to the heavy hitters just upvalley—world-famous towns such as Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga, with their legendary wineries, resorts, and restaurants–Napa itself was the northern California equivalent of flyover country, the place you had to drive through to get to the real action.
Today that’s changing in a hurry, as downtown Napa is being transformed by a slew of sleek restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels, as well as the Oxbow Market, a gathering of local food vendors that’s the best thing north of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. All of these are attracting a younger, livelier crowd than the stratospherically-priced towns up Highway 29. Stroll along First or Main streets or the new River Walk complex, an esplanade perched above the Napa River, any evening and you’ll find happy throngs of 20-somethings nibbling sushi at Morimoto, downing oysters at Angele, or tearing into crispy, wood-fired pizzas at Oenotri. The historic Fagiani’s Bar, a watering hole since 1945, has just been reimagined as The Thomas at Fagiani’s, a tri-level bar and restaurant with a top-floor open terrace overlooking the river. Wine bars and winery tasting rooms abound within a few blocks, so you can sample a bunch of Napa Valley cabernets without risking a highway encounter with Officer Chip.
A few weeks ago I got to explore downtown Napa in depth, courtesy of the new Andaz Napa hotel. Andaz is a group of seven (and counting) boutique properties under the Hyatt umbrella, each one customized to its locale, from San Diego to Shanghai. Of course, every hotel seeking “hip” and “boutique” cred loves to boast about its groovy bar, party-ready patio, and absence of last-century features like reception desks. Amazingly, the Andaz met all these criteria in a thoroughly delightful way. Service came via swarms of iPad-toting staffers who did everything from check you in to arrange to have your wine purchases shipped home, no problem. The lobby is more akin to a living room; the bar, immediately to your right upon entering, offers everything from eye-opening espresso to expertly-mixed late night cocktails. Rich wood and quirky design elements—Moroccan-inspired hanging lamps, a rotary-dial hall phone—made the place seem miles away from cookie cutter anything.
The guestrooms, were equally impressive. Even the smallest are 350 square feet. From the solid hickory floors to the nubby fabrics, comfortable desk chairs, and spacious bathrooms with long shower stalls complete with wood benches, they manage to be both modern and warmly luxurious—a rare combination given the reasonable rates (doubles start at $209, including wifi, parking and even the non-alchoholic contents of the minibar). The bathroom cosmetics, from a line called 29, were custom-created by Lydia Mondavi, wife of fourth-generation winemaker Rob Mondavi.
The Mondavi connection to Andaz and Hyatt turns out to be more than skin deep. For the past five years, Michael Mondavi Family Estate has been producing a lineup of wines exclusively for Hyatt, called Canvas. The wines, made by Michael’s personable and highly knowledgeable son, Rob, have been a resounding success with hotel guests (they’re also available online), and father and son just happened to be introducing a Canvas pinot noir during our visit. Purely for the sake of research, we managed to taste it, along with the merlot, cabernet, chardonnay, and pinot grigio. When in Napa…
“The changes here in town over the last five years have been remarkable,” noted Michael Mondavi as we strolled along Main Street one balmy evening. Having been born and raised within a few miles, he ought to know. Clearly, it’s time for visitors to northern California to discover what the Mondavis are already enjoying.
Andaz Napa; 1450 First St., Napa, CA 94559; 707/687-1234
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.
By Bobbie Leigh
The biggest thing that happened to the Piedmont region in Northwestern Italy since Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC was the 2006 Winter Olympic Games celebrated in Turin. Now this former industrial region, where Fiat and textile mills were catalysts for growth, is poised for another major invasion — more visitors than ever before. Piedmont is doing its best to attract a new generation of travelers, those who have already “done” the big three – Rome, Venice, and Florence.
Of course, those cities can never be done. Their treasures are exhaustive, innumerable, and eternal. Yet roaming around northwest Italy does yield many compelling experiences. The region around the ski areas Sestriere and Bardonecchia are stunning. Farther south, the highlights are rolling vineyards, small preserved medieval town centers, culinary specialties like white truffles in September, cheeses and varieties of rice — and most of all, wine, especially Barolo. The Piedmont is also a paradise for hazelnut (nocciola) lovers. You can expect to find Nutella (pasta gianduja), the popular spread of hazelnut and chocolate, almost everywhere. (Experts say it tastes better in Italy.)
1. WONDERFUL WINE TOURING AND TASTING
Considered one of Italy’s most prestigious reds, Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape that grows in the calcareous (clay) soil of the Langhe area in the Piedmont region. At a local wine store in New York, a decent bottle of Barolo is about $75 while a great one might be $200. So it was reasonable to expect that on the wine’s home turf, it might be somewhat less. Yet, a good bottle in the Barolo wine region averaged about 25 € ($34). When a visitor gulped, expecting a much lower price, a helpful waiter suggested Gavi, one of the premier dry white wines of Italy. And it is quite affordable. So go to the region for the wines, but keep your wallet fattened with euros.
The best place to learn about Barolo is the E. di Mirafiore Foundation, which is the home of the Fontanafredda vineyards. The estate was originally built in 1858 as the hunting lodge of Victor Emanuel II, Italy’s first king and House of Savoy family member whose history dominates the region. The winery was founded in 1878 by Count Emanuele Guerrieri, son of Victor Emanuel and his mistress Rosa Vercellana, who he later married and named Countess Rosa of Mirafiori. Stretching across some 250 hilly green acres, the Fontanafredda property is dotted with the red and gold striped buildings, colors of the House of Savoy. The vineyards produce both still and sparkling wines, but the most highly prized is the classic silver label Barolo. A visit of the winery costs 2 €. A guided tour through the historical cellars with three wine tastings will set you back 10 € per person. To reserve: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For most people, seeing one oak barrel is quite enough, so take a quick tour and then spend as much time as you can at the wine shop and the restaurant (Il Ristoro della Fondazione E. di Miraflore: www.fondazionemirafiore.it). The current partial owner of the historic Fonatanfredda is Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly, a high-end supermarket chain of all things Italian. The chain has five markets in Italy, one in Japan, and one in the US with more on the way. Farinetti, formerly owned an Italian electronics chain of stores, but got into food years ago. All the menus at the restaurant are prepared with ingredients selected by Eataly. Try to schedule some free time so you can take a short walk through a wooded retreat with vineyards and the ubiquitous hazelnut groves in what has been dubbed “Il bosco de Pensieri” or the Wood of Thought. Each station along the 45-minute walk has special thoughts—not all as profound as this one from Beaudelaire: “A man who only drinks water has a secret to hide.”
2. THE SANCTUARY OF OROPA
Leading up to the “Sacro Monte di Oropa” are 12 chapels dedicated to the life of the Madonna with fresco paintings and statues. Within the sanctuary, an architectural complex that is a UNESCO World Heritage landmark, is the “Old” Church and a 1774 “New” Church. While the original church of Oropa built on the complex near the town of Biella dates back to the 13th century, construction of the sanctuary seen today started in the 17th century with completion of the new church in 1960. The setting is Alpine stunning, but unless you have an urge to live like a monk or nun, skip staying overnight in one of the rooms outfitted for religious pilgrims.
The statue of the Black Virgin of Oropa, one of the best known in the region, is venerated by the pilgrims, among others. No one authority claims to understand the origin of the “Madonna Nera,” a statue holding the infant Jesus covered with gold and precious stones. Among many theories are: smoke turning the pine dark; a miracle; and simply age. The Black Madonna possibly can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. One of the most intriguing aspects of a visit to the mountain-top sanctuary is a long corridor, a wing of the complex, lined with hundreds of folk art paintings as “Ex Voto” also known as votive offerings dating from the 15th century. Most are simple renditions of people who threw away their crutches, were healed from illnesses, recovered from auto crashes, and even triumphed at soccer games — all considered as miraculous outcomes due to their pilgrimages. For details: email@example.com.
3. THE SUNDAY CHRIST
Biella has a historic area in the city, fairly well preserved, but in its lower, newer section is the Cathedral with some fine Gothic panels, although nothing outstanding. But besides a little door, almost entirely hidden is an amazing painting: the 15th century Sunday Christ. In all likelihood you will never seen anything like it elsewhere. The Christ appears pierced and wounded all over his body, surrounded by axes, saws, and hoes … all sorts of agricultural tools. He holds a large sheep shears in front of his wounded body. The painting was designed to be a warning to all the farmers — do not work on Sunday: if you do, you cause Jesus immeasurable suffering. The painting is a visual admonition to the faithful to keep all feast-days and abandon their everyday work for one day a week.
A visit to Turin was supposed to be a shade more interesting than Detroit. Friends who had been there during its textile heyday had little to report, but the city is well worth a visit. For a start, the National Cinema Museum is hard to leave. With comfortable chaise lounges, you can stay for hours watching old and relatively new movies. It is housed in the Mole Antonelliana, a symbol of the city that was originally built to be a Jewish temple with construction commencing in 1862 and completed in 1889. Once the tallest brick building in Europe, it still towers over the rest of the city and from the top panoramic terrace you have great views of the Alps. Temple Hall is the heart of the museum with a large exhibition area devoted to film genres and themes — animation, horror, science fiction etc. The best of the archival materials are the silent Italian films projected on giant screens.
Turin is the city of chocolate, especially hot chocolate. Ice cream on a stick, the pinguino (also the Italian word for penguin) was invented here in 1935. Café culture in Turin was at its height at the end of the last century but still thrives. Several of the confetteria — the ornate Baratti & Milano founded in 1858, Caffe Mulassano inaugurated in 1907 and restored in 1978, the Caffe Fiorio opened in 1780 — are popular places for a coffee, an artisan gelato, and small treats. But the all-time favorite is the Caffe Al Bicerin on the small square, Piazza della Consolata. Founded in 1763, it has probably not more than 12 marble-topped tables, wood paneling, and a wood floor (www.bicerin.it) . “Bicerin” means small glass in the local dialect, but the drink is served in a large stemmed glass. The café, where supposedly Puccini wrote La Boheme, has always been run by women, and is best known for its bicerin, a 1858 hot, layered drink with coffee, chocolate, and cream. The recipe is well guarded, but here is an approximation. Heat some whole milk with at least 3 ounces of chopped bittersweet chocolate. Whisk the mixture until it boils for about one minute. Make some Italian strong espresso and some slightly sweetened heavy cream. Then compose three layers in the stemmed glass: first the warm chocolate mixture, followed by spooning the coffee, and lastly the whipped cream.
5. THE PASSION PLAY- ITALIAN STYLE
Sordevolo is a tiny town with one main attraction which will occur next in 2015. “La Passione,” an event similar to Oberammergau, is a folk art performance where 400 locals, the entire community of Sordevolo puts on its own version of a passion play. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the representation of the Passion has taken place here every five years. Work has already started on this three-hour theatrical performance that will next take place in 2015 starting in June and ending in late September. Until then, visit Sordevolo for little museum which documents past performances and watch a short film. According to local lore, villagers made a vow in 1634 to perform a passion play here in perpetuity because their town was spared the ravages of the plague. Even though it’s not the same as in the better known Bavarian village presentation, Sordevolo’s Passione is still a remarkable communal feat.
Where to stay:
Just opened the four-star Somaschi Hotel, the former Monastero di Cherasco, is a best bet. Cherasco is a hilltop town with a medieval ambiance. Totally renovated with a lovely restaurant, spa, spacious grounds, and English-speaking staff, it retains a lot of old-world charm but with a contemporary sensibility: www.marachellagruppo.it; firstname.lastname@example.org.
My trip was orchestrated by the Piedmont Tourism Board and Central Holidays (www.centralholidays.com) which organizes both individual and group trips to Italy as well as the rest of Europe.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
By Alexander Lobrano
For anyone visiting Paris, the city’s thriving bistrot a vins scene offers both great eating and excellent value for the money. If Les Fines Gueles near the Place des Victoires is one of my favorite of the new generation of wine-oriented bistros serving good simple market-driven cooking all over town, I’ve also always liked the funky and very trendy Le Verre Volé on a side street near the charming Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement. The problem with this place, though, was that its popularity has always made it such a challenge to snag a table. Now, though, they’ve just expanded the dining room, which makes it incrementally more possible to enjoy one of Paris’s best bistrot a vins without having remembered to call a week or two a head of time.
The head chef here is Delphine Zampetti, the girl friend of chef Inaki Aizpitarte, the chef at Le Chateaubriand, one of Paris’s cult bobo bistros, and she learned her lesson well while working with Raquel Carena at Le Baratin and Inaki. To wit, her food is smart, stylish, international and wryly maternal. But the maman who inspired Delphine doesn’t knit or make jam, instead she wears high-heels, practices Tai-Chi, has a passport full of exotic stamps, and a 24 year old lover.
Le Verre also usefully open on Sundays and many holidays, so after a long absence, I came for dinner with Bruno, Francois and Tina on Armistice Day. The new dining room is a narrow space to the right of the kitchen, and it’s preferable to the busy, lively and often noisy front room if you want to have a quiet conversation. At the back of the space, an international staff works in an open kitchen, while twin etageres displaying the wines served and sold here–they specialize in organic and natural wines, line both walls. The price displayed is the retail price, with 7 Euros added for corkage.
Even though I hadn’t been here in some time, I was hoping that the lamb-and-fig terrine I’d loved the last time I came might be on the menu, but alas, no such luck. So instead, I started with a salad of sliced oranges, flaked salt cod, croutons and black olives, while the others went with the Thai style green papaya and beef salad, finely sliced veal carpaccio with savings of mimolette cheese and grilled octopus with a salad of herbs. With forks and knives flying, we all tried everything, and everything was delicious accompanied by excellent bread the pleasantly fruity organic Saumur Champigny the waiter suggested. Next, it was a neat split between couples, with two having the grilled duck breast with roasted turnips and an intriguing side slaw of sliced radishes and onions in light mayonnaise, and the other pair, the plump and wonderfully tangy saucisse de Toulouse with potato puree and lively little salad of mixed baby organic greens and herbs.
Aside from the fact that this food was well-cooked, politely inventive and of very good quality, what I liked about it was that it was perfect social food, or pleasant comfort food to serve as a backdrop to good conversation and good wine, and the organic Crozes Hermitage, one of my favorite wines, that we drank with our main courses was spectacular.
If the rest of the gang finished up with apple-and-pear crumble and chocolate cream, I chose the cheese–excellent Comte, Abbaye de Citeaux, and Brin d’Amour as my grand finale and enjoyed it very much. Le Verre Volé a delightful address for a reasonably priced casual meal, and also offers the opportunity to discover one of Paris’s lesser known but trendiest and most atmospheric neighborhoods.
Le Verre Volé, 67 rue de Lancry, 10th, Tel. 01048-03-17-34. Metro: Jacques Bonsergent. Open daily. Average 35 Euros.
L'Avant Comptoir. Photo by Alexander Lobrano.
We are thrilled to welcome Alexander Lobrano, Gourmet magazine's European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing, as a regular contributor. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of "Hungry for Paris" (Random House), his personal selection of the city's 102 best restaurants, which Alice Waters has called "a wonderful guide to eating in Paris." Lobrano’s Letter from Paris will run monthly in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.
Jamin and L'Avant Comptoir
So "Jamin" is back, sort of. Or actually it's not. Instead, restaurateur Alain Pras has chosen to revive the name of the restaurant that propelled Joel Robuchon to international renown when he won his third Michelin star in 1984 and which went dormant when a short-lived Caribbean restaurant (La Table de Babette) occupied the space for a few years, but relaunch it in the ilk of the Guy Savoy bistros where he worked for many years (La Butte Chaillot, etc.).